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The new TV series Masters of Sex is set in the middle of the last century — before the 60's, before the pill, almost, it seems, before the invention of sex. It's the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneering researchers in the field of human sexual response, and it's based on a 2009 book of the same name, by Thomas Maier.
Masters and Johnson are played on the small screen by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, who joined NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the show and the work Masters and Johnson were doing.
"No one had really done it before," Sheen says. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey had released several reports on his work in the 1940s and 1950s, but they were based on personal interviews, not observation in a laboratory. "So no one had actually studied what happens to the body during sex."
Caplan on Virginia Johnson's role in the research
I like to think of them as two parts of a whole. Bill [Masters] has very very shoddy people skills, he doesn't know how to make people feel comfortable in any sort of way, but he had all the scientific expertise and all the prestige. Virginia comes in, and by the strength of her personality, she makes herself this indispensable part of this study.
On Masters' real-life propositioning of Johnson
Caplan: The things that are the most shocking in our show are true, which then makes them even more shocking.
Sheen: One of the difficulties of this show is that there's almost an embarrassment of riches. It's about choosing what you keep in, as opposed to trying to create content for it. It's an extraordinary story.
On dealing with the amount of sexual content in the show
Caplan: I giggle every time Michael takes his shirt off. Everybody does.
Sheen: Apart from small children, who start crying and running away.
Caplan: It's so strange to think about. Plenty of times on set, co-stars don't get along. And I cannot imagine that. Because when Masters and Johnson start taking on the research together, they do the wired-up version of having sex, meaning we have taped electrodes all over our bodies, and if you cover up in between takes, they all fall off, and it's an extra 20 minutes. And so we got used to just sort of sitting around in our birthday suits and having conversations about sports.